The story tells us a married couple Mr. and Mrs. Lethwes. They have been married for twenty years now, but there has been a black cloud hanging over her much of that time. Mr. and Mrs. Lethwes have never had children of their own. It isn’t that they haven’t tried; it is just that Mrs. Lethwes is barren. This breaks their hearts for sure, but Mr. Lethwes has been more than kind and consoling to his wife, and would never do anything to make her feel less than loved. Yet, she cannot help but feel that he has pity on her for being his barren wife.
Mrs. Lethwes intercepted a letter that her husband of twenty years is having an affair with a girl named Elspeth. It happened on that when both Mr. and Mrs. Lethwes were staying in Hotel Georges in France. The receptionist girl came there with a letter addressed to Mr. Lethwes. The letter was written by a female orchestra singer. The lady must have been charming and beautiful. Mrs. Lethwes came to by that letter that her husband and that Orchestra girl were in love with another. She immediately destroyed the letter and never confronted her husband with it. She spends part of her day imagining what the other woman is like, —“Is Elspeth awake too? She wonders that. Does Elspeth, in her city precinct, share the same pale shade of dawn?” but she does this without animosity. She apparently has accepted that there has been an unacknowledged quid pro quo between herself and her husband: The marriage has been childless, and although he wished to adopt a child, she refused. An affair, then, is his rightful due, his payment for his acceptance without rancor of her childlessness.
The wife, however, has paid a price, of which a slow slide into closet alcoholism is probably the least. Her self-deceit is far more serious. She spends much of her day composing different scenarios that might happen in the future. She keeps thinking that her husband would be enjoying physically with his beloved orchestra girl. Her favorite appears to be the belief that Elspeth, the lover, will become pregnant. She also thinks that if her husband’s girlfriend would give birth to baby girl, to would take the baby and make her own child. Mrs. Lethwes also imagines Elspeth as a 36 years old beautiful
and charming girl desirous to produce a son or daughter from Mr. Lethwes, her husband.
Mrs. Lethwes happens to be a very strange kind of wife. She sympathizes with her husband’s girlfriend, while we know it seldom happens in reality. She once again thinks that if Elspeth would give birth to a baby, she will bring up the baby along with her loving husband. The wife turns this to advantage, imagining that she and her husband will take the child and somehow contrive a happy ending from the long years of deception.
The irony of her situation is that she remains fond of her husband, who is gentle and kind with her, and from the outside the marriage would look like a “good” one, but in truth it is nothing other than a long lie. Because of the knowledge she possesses, there can never be an honest exchange between them. “On the mottled worktop in the kitchen the meat is where Mrs Lethwes left it, the fat partly cut away, the knife still separating it from one of the chops. The potatoes she scraped earlier in the day are in a saucepan of cold water, the peas she shelled in another.”
These last lines of the story are truly heartbreaking, but only if you’ve woken with Mrs Lethwes first, traveled with her to market and coffee shop, watched her weed the garden, listened to her chat with the housekeeper and to her thoughts. She regrets her childlessness, tries to reconcile herself to her husband’s affair. Her anxieties and suppositions assault her, deepen, become murkier, more complex and more urgent as the day turns to night and she prepares Mr Lethwes’s dinner.
Our reaction to the end has to do with the completeness of our immersion in Mrs Lethwes’s consciousness, the steady revelation of her regrets and hopes, and with the stunning point-of-view shift, the sudden, dramatic bloom at the very end.